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Good Bad Taste: 'Pacific Rim' and the Importance of Optimism

As always, my interests lie in trying to verbalize what it is in film that we personally respond to -- about what it is about a movie that makes us think it's great. For me, it's the integration of theme, character and plot.
It seems almost too obvious to say, as if all critics value the same thing, so let me elaborate.
Some people say that character is the most important part of a film, that you can't build an interesting movie around one dimensional characters, while others feel a plot must be structurally consistent or original. It doesn't matter as much to me how deep the film gets in exploring it's characters, plots or theme, I'm more interested in the ways that those three aspects interplay and relate.
My favorite movie is RoboCop. There, I said it. Not only is it a perfect example of the high art/low art divide that fascinates me enough to run this blog, it is also a perfect example of the integration of plot, character and theme. Depending on how you describe the film, you cannot help but touch on all three topics.
RoboCop is a film about a man who, quite literally, has his identity taken from him by corporate America. The only way for him to reclaim who he is, is by embracing what makes him human -- his passion and violence.
The plot of the movie is inextricable from the character arc that transforms Murphy to RoboCop and back. These arcs that mirror one another, when placed side-by-side create the thematic content of the film.
Pacific Rim is a movie that wholeheartedly embraces this integration -- on both a literal and thematic level -- explicitly making each character arc and the grander plot about the positive ways humanity can come together to overcome our obstacles, both natural and man-made.
This is not to say that Pacific Rim is a flawless film. Though they get the appropriate thematic mileage out of the concept of 'drifting' they never use it to its full dramatic potential. How compelling would a scene where two pilots go out of sync in the middle of a Kaiju battle be? It would bring some needed human drama and human stakes to an otherwise overwhelming spectacle.
Considering how great Mako is, and the care they took with her character, it is frustrating that she's pretty much the only woman in the entire film with any personality, and given the relative racial configuration of the main characters -- still not as wonderfully racially mixed as Furious Six, a film that acknowledges its sole white-male character as the most boring of the group -- it's bothersome that the film falls back on having a blond-white bland protagonist to save the day.
These aren't huge minuses against the film, but considering the subject matter, and considering that they're already a step above most Hollywood blockbusters in terms of racial and gender portrayals, it's frustrating to see them not make that final last step.
But we're not here to review the flick; it's morally positive and it features a mid-air sword fight between a Jaeger and a flying Kaiju -- so it's pretty safe to say I liked it a whole lot.
Pacific Rim is a flick about the power and importance of cooperation. Admittedly, it's not the deepest theme in the world, but time and again Guillermo Del Toro has acknowledged and embraced that fact, because he see's Pacific Rim as a film for children.
We live in an era where fantasy has been taken from children in an effort to legitimize it -- as if it needs the legitimacy. Positivity and optimism in film has been labeled hokey or camp and therefore must be eliminated. In film, Superman breaks necks, Batman films are the place -- for some reason -- for serious ruminations on the national security state of a post-9/11 society.
Heroes are now flawed on a moral basis, and often must overcome their own apathy to action. Action-fantasy has gone from being about family films that adults can enjoy, to adult films that children can see.
But there's nothing inherently unsophisticated about positivity, and the effort to bring fantasy to the real world has had the unintended side-effect of stripping these stories of their most tangible meaning -- they ignore that these are supposed to be moral guides for children.
Looking back, it's absolutely clear to me that I learned about the importance of tolerance and the evils of bigotry from the X-Men, long before I could understand what either of those words meant or looked like in the real world. The hero's tale is supposed to lay the moral groundwork inside you, so that when the time comes, you do the right thing.
Pacific Rim is gloriously, obviously and enthusiastically a moral tale in that vein.
On the most tangible level, it is a film about people throughout the world coming together and figuring out a solution when faced with a crisis.
On a character level, every person in the film -- from Raleigh to Mako to Stacker to Herc to Chuck to Newton to Gottleib -- have to overcome a loss or deficiency and trust another person in order to become whole.
On a thematic level, it is about people who are forced to connect with each other through drifting, learning their histories and embracing who they are.
This message is being delivered to kids in the most entertaining way possible.
This movie comes at a time where politicians refuse to come together for the slightest compromise, where people of every political group are convinced that the very basis of our society is crumbling, and it comes and tells us, 'It doesn't have to be that way, we can do something about it if we just grit our teeth and give ourselves to each other.'
The story and characters don't have much depth, because why overcomplicate something you hope will sink in. It's important to not take an intentional straight-forwardness as an intellectual deficiency on the part of the filmmakers.
Guillermo Del Toro is Guillermo Del Toro no matter what film he's making. If you like and respect Pan's Labyrinth, don't you owe it to him to at least approach the film on the terms he's presenting it on. Del Toro is an Oscar-nominated screenwriter, he's not suddenly forgetting the basics.
The film is careful to ensure that its optimism isn't weightless, that the battle for survival isn't effortless. After a brief amazing opening that crams in about three movies' worth of information, the film launches us into the absolute lowest point of our struggle for survival. Optimism without effort is as bad as pessimism, it encourages stagnation under the assumption things will get better. The film highlights the importance of responsibility, the debt you owe to society to make the world a better place. Raleigh isn't the best Jaeger pilot, in fact, there's nothing special about him at all. He is an everyman, and as it is his responsibility to save the world, so is it ours.
Escapism gets a bad rap. The point of escapist art isn't to visit a world where our troubles don't exist for two hours until we're thrust back into them as soon as the theater doors open. The point of escapist art is to show us a better way. To present a world where characters make the right choices, the selfless choices, to make the world a better place, in the hopes that their actions influence our own.
If film represents the language of our cultural norms, why are so many so insistent on merely reflecting the world? Isn't that just a good way to reproduce the troubles we have now? Why not create films, particularly in terms that children understand, where every aspect of the piece works together to impart a moral lesson.
Because Guillermo Del Toro is a gifted visualist, he has summed up his entire movie in a single shot inserted into the Hong Kong Jaeger/Kaiju fight. Gipsy Tango throws a punch, misses and it crashes through an abandoned building. The camera goes from the outdoor wreckage to one of the inner offices. The fist crashes through the office and at the end of its arc, lightly taps a Newton's Cradle -- the five suspended metal balls that clack together and transfer energy. It sums it all up. Regardless of who we are or what we believe, we're all in this together, and every action we take transfers through others and affects everyone we touch. If that's so, why not make our actions positive ones?
Pacific Rim is a positive film in an age where hope is discouraged. For that alone it should be praised.
Plus, that Hong Kong fight is dope.

Can You Dig It?: What we're enjoying this week.

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Ed Wood: Oddly enough, Tim Burton's most personal film is a biopic of someone who isn't him. Earnest throughout, the film embraces Ed Wood's passion without ever belittling his talent, in a completely snark-free celebration of the power of film. Like most Burton films, Wood is less concerned with scene-to-scene story construction -- the plot shambles around like one of the Plan 9 zombies -- but achieves its propulsion through an emotional throughline. Unlike the lonlieness and isolation of Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood tells the story of an isolated man who develops a family of society's castoffs. It's a beautiful film with some subtle touches -- Howard Shore's theme for Bela Lugosi references Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake," the theme for Dracula -- that really marks one of the highlights of Burton's career.

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